Step 1: Soap

I was so happy to wake up this morning and find this photo on my WhatsApp feed! It is from our refugee friends and partners in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya (population just under 200,000 people).

IAFR wired funds to them this week to help them combat a potential outbreak of coronavirus in the camp. They wasted no time buying soap (photo).

They’re now waiting for the arrival of a shipment of 50 liter water tanks and nozzles. Once they arrive, our partners plan to turn the 162 churches in their network into badly needed soap distribution centers. The churches are already strategically embedded throughout the camp and host community.

How good to see the refugee church actively engaging their community on the front lines of the coronavirus response!

May God use his people and the soap to protect the extremely vulnerable people there!

Soap in the desert

Above: a life-saving soap distribution center

Refugee camps have been identified as among the most vulnerable places to a Covid-19 outbreak.

I reached out to our refugee partner agency (URHC) in Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya) to see if we can do anything to help deter such an outbreak. We identified that one of the most urgent and needed things in the camp was soap.

Most of us living in countries of influence and power take soap for granted. It plays an often taken for granted role in our lives – keeping us healthy.

But our forcibly displaced friends live in harsh circumstances without access to stuff as simple and essential as soap.

As we talked together, we realized that the 162 refugee churches with whom we partner could all be transformed into local soap distribution centers! All they need is a 50 liter tank, a tap, liquid soap and water.

We did the math. It would take just under $40 to set up one church with everything – including 1 month’s supply of soap. Thereafter it would cost $7 per church to resupply them with another month’s worth of soap. It sounded doable.

After working out the plan and budget, I spoke with a friend and mentioned my excitement to have found a way to help the churches in Kakuma serve and protect their communities. That friend got excited too – and within a couple of days made a donation to cover the setup and 4 months’ worth of soap for all 162 churches!

It took my breath away. God is clearly determined to provide this protection for the vulnerable people in Kakuma!

So IAFR wired the first round of funds earlier this week. The refugee churches are preparing to set up their soap distribution systems.

I’m hoping and praying that the soap begins to flow before the weekend in Kakuma!

Answering Why?

I spent some time last week trying to honestly and concisely answer the question, “Why do we do what we do?” My initial answer is below. I’m in the process of running this by board members, colleagues and a theologian for further input. So far, it seems to deeply resonate with our team. It’s both beautiful and powerful to put words on deeply held convictions.

Why do we what do what we do?

Our mission flows out of the heart of our good and loving Creator and our relationship with Jesus Christ.

The Bible reveals that God hears, sees and cares for all humankind – with Jesus being the ultimate revelation as his incarnation, life, sacrifice and death demonstrate just how far God’s love will go to rescue us from evil, restore us to Himself and bring about the renewal of all things.

The Holy Spirit pours God’s love into our hearts, compelling us to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Fueled by God’s love and empowered by his Holy Spirit, we are compelled to help people survive and recover from forced displacement.

We serve with hope even in the midst of sorrow and suffering. For by Jesus’ resurrection and promised return, we know that love and life get the final word rather than evil and death. We have this hope not only in this life, but in the life to come. Jesus has risen and so will we.

As we serve, we pray and long for the time when all things will be made new and life and peace will fill the earth – and there will be no more refugees.

Buffalo Bicycles

Above: A Buffalo Bicycle. Photo: World Relief.

It’s not easy to get around a refugee camp that covers 12 square miles with a population of over 160,000 – many of whom have been stuck there for decades. That’s the situation in Kakuma refugee camp, in remote northwestern Kenya.

So it is understandable that our friends there would ask if we could help them get bicycles for 15 of the key leaders of an association of 162 churches in the camp and surrounding host community. The request came by WhatsApp this morning.

We’ve worked together for a decade and I know the need is legit. I wrote up a project proposal for our board’s consideration at our meeting later this month.

15 bicycles @ $180/bike = $2,700

The bikes they want are called “Buffalo bicycles”, presumably because they’re tough. I’ve seen them in the camp where the roads are rough and unkempt. It’s pretty much an off-road bicycleland.

Each bike will be used to connect, encourage, equip and assist churches throughout the camp and in the host community (in which living conditions aren’t much better than in the camp).

I’m hoping and praying that we can come up with the funding quickly.

Place

Falingi (above with flag in hand) became an American today along with 731 other people from 81 different countries of origin.

This is a big deal, because Falingi has been a refugee for most of his life. Unchecked violence made his homeland uninhabitable. As he was without parents, his uncle took him into his family. I met them over 10 years ago in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi – among the world’s poorest nations.

Dzaleka was a political prison before it was turned into a refugee camp in 1994 (in response to a wave of refugees fleeing genocide in Rwanda). Life is hard in Dzaleka.

Above: Dzaleka refugee camp. There are 40,000 Falingis in Dzaleka today.

This is why refugee resettlement to countries like the USA is so important. It offers people like Falingi a chance to regain place in the world and rebuild his life.

It is a travesty that the US has slashed refugee resettlement numbers from an average of 75,000/year to just 18,000 this year.

I spoke with several of the new US citizens today. They were so happy and so proud. Like Falingi, they want to work hard and be a net contributor to society.

In there eyes I saw an America that gave me hope and inspiration.

YMCA

I met Henry Crosby today. He’s the Sr. Director of Social Responsibility at the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities this morning. We met at the Y’s Equity and Innovation Center in downtown Minneapolis. A friend from a past church brought us together. I’m glad she did.

I was so impressed with Henry and the Y’s Equity Center. God knows our city needs the kind of services they offer with the aim of bringing people together. I really appreciate the heart, passion and humility of the Y’s staff.

The Y’s New Americans program is an initiative that is helping refugees and asylum seekers and other migrants find their feet and their place in our society. I’m hoping our local Jonathan House residents will one day benefit from some of their programs!

I discovered that Henry lives near my childhood home in Golden Valley! We’re around the same age so we took a brief detour down memory lane talking about a place in which we share history. Once again Inexperienced how shared place is a powerful connecting force between people.

Sone unlikely threads came together today – a friend from a former church, Golden Valley and a concern for the welfare of displaced people. That was special. And it just might lead to mutual blessing down the road.

Roots and Causes

People have often asked me about the root causes of forced displacement. They often suggest that it would be wiser for us to focus on finding solutions to those rather than focusing on serving refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people.

It is important to identify root causes. But it is also critical for some of us to also focus our attention, energy and resources on helping those bearing the brunt of systemic violence and hatred in the world. We need to engage the issue of forced displacement on multiple levels at the same time – just as we need ambulances, ERs, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and PT professionals while other industries seek out cures to disease and other life-threatening conditions.

While IAFR is committed to helping the church show up in humanitarian space in life-giving ways, we can’t help but often think about the causes behind the flight of the people we love and serve.

Many think that the root causes of forced displacement include war, persecution, failed states and gross violations of human rights. And while it is true that these are the immediate causes that force people to flee their homes and countries, these are not the root causes.

We have to peel another layer off the onion and ask, what are the forces that ignite wars? What empowers governments to single out specific people and/or groups of people to deny them basic human rights and even persecute them? Why do governments fail, losing the ability to protect and serve their own people? I believe that these questions will help us venture further down the path when it comes to identifying and understanding root causes behind forced displacement.

As we reflect on these questions, we will also begin to see the warning signs within our own societies. Signs that we may be embracing, normalizing and strengthening the very things that fuel the hatred and violence behind forced displacement.

The word “root” is very helpful as roots are underground and out of sight. We will only identify root causes of forced displacement if we dig below the surface.

Consider the buckthorn tree

It’s a fast growing and spreading tree that plagues many of us here in USA. It was brought from Europe to the US in the 1800s and used as an ornamental shrub and helpful windbreak. But what was was initially perceived to be pretty and useful has become a plague. The Minnesota DNR identifies the many ways buckthorn is a threat to our habitat:

  • It out-competes native plants for nutrients, light and moisture
  • It degrades wildlife habitat
  • It threatens the future of forests, wetlands, prairies
  • It contributes to erosion by shading out other plants that grow on the forest floor
  • It serves as a host to other pests
  • It forms an impenetrable layer of vegetation
  • It lacks natural controls like insects or disease that would curb its growth

There are many websites devoted to “buckthorn removal”. There is no quick and easy say to defeat buckthorn. It turns out that my multi year battle with buckthorn is the norm and complete victory isn’t possible. I’ll be fighting it for as long as I have a yard.

Because it is difficult to uproot, I initially just cut it off at ground level and did my best to damage the stump thinking it wouldn’t survive. It proved me wrong. My attempt to kill it amounted to pruning it and making it stronger. It’s roots went deeper and it began to shoot up new sprouts everywhere.

I was losing the battle. So, I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed a shovel and dug them out, one by one. It became quickly apparent that my earlier attempts at killing the trees simply made their root system stronger and more difficult to uproot. It turns out that it is far easier to uproot a young buckthorn tree than it is an older one.

I am impressed with the way buckthorn sinks and establishes its roots. Not only do they go deep, they also shoot off major root systems horizontally – often somewhere around 6-12″ under the soil. And those off shoots make the trees really tough to uproot. It is often impossible to do without a shovel.

Back to root causes

I mention all of this simply to underline that dealing with root issues may not prove to be a quick and simple solution to the escalating numbers of people being forced to flee their homes and countries. The root issues are not making the news headlines. They lurk under the surface. If we focus on the immediate causes of forced displacement alone, we may later discover we have been unintentionally strengthening the root causes.

I am going to ponder the seeds that give life to the forces of hatred and violence that uproot people. I hope you will too. I welcome your comments and thoughts.

I expect that we will find the roots of much of today’s displacement are centuries old and that they have entangled themselves deep within our own hearts over the generations.

Needing shelter in the Cities

The text came during supper tonight. A man in the Twin Cities needs shelter…

He fled Somali and while uprooted has come to be a follower of Jesus. And while the US government acknowledges that he would likely be killed for his faith if deported back to Somalia, it still refused to give him asylum – permanent refuge and a pathway to citizenship. So the US will not deport him – but they will also not grant him place – or even a work permit at this time.

How is someone supposed to live in the US without a work permit?

It’s a cruel joke as it feeds the misinformed stereotype that refugees and migrants are lazy. This man desperately wants to work and earn his keep. But the US won’t let him.

He’s spent the past 18 months in a Salvation Army shelter. Their policy is to limit people to 12 months in a shelter – but they understand this brother has nowhere to go.

A friend of mine who once worked in Somalia asked if IAFR might have a space for this brother in one of our Jonathan Houses – homes in which we offer shelter to asylum seekers during the 6-18 months that they are not able to legally work in the US while their case is examined. They don’t even get access to social services during this time.

It’s like we are trying to set vulnerable people up to fail.

I messaged our local IAFR Ministry Leader about this need. She quickly replied that there is a space open in the Jonathan House for men. Within a couple of hours I was able to connect my friend with our team in Minnesota.

This is when the church shines.

Strangers connect through the amazing network of the Church in order to help a vulnerable stranger in our community.

Even if we are able to meet this Somali brother’s need for shelter, he still faces life challenges the size of Goliath. He needs our prayers. He needs a supportive community of faith. He needs healing after living in a state of toxic stress for so many years. He needs place.

For these we pray. So be it.